Garda whistleblowers: the gravest of allegations

Setting up commission is an extremely serious for the individuals concerned and the reputation of the Garda as a dependable, disciplined force

The appointment of a commission of investigation into allegations that Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan and her predecessor Martin Callinan engaged in a campaign to discredit and smear whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe by spreading rumours about him has raised issues of Garda culture, accountability and honesty.

It is an extremely serious development for the individuals concerned and the reputation of the Garda as a dependable, disciplined organisation.

The handling of allegations involving abuses and cover-ups contributed to the departure of Mr Callinan and former minister for justice Alan Shatter in 2014. An investigation by Mr Justice Kevin O'Higgins in 2016 found there had been a corporate closing of ranks, alteration to the Pulse recording system and delays in producing documents concerning allegations made by Sgt McCabe. The latest exercise, conducted by Mr Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill, arose from allegations by former head of the Garda Press Office Supt David Taylor that he had been formally instructed to discredit Sgt McCabe. Ms O'Sullivan and Mr Callinan deny this. While the judge made no findings in his report, he suggested a sworn inquiry was the best way to establish the facts.

Calls from Opposition politicians for Ms O’Sullivan to “step aside” during the investigation have been rejected by Government, with the approval of Fianna Fáil. It is an understandable response, not just because she is entitled to “due process” but on pragmatic grounds that the leading figure in this troubled organisation should be supported at a time when rank-and-file members so recently threatened to break the law.

That situation will change should Mr Justice Peter Charleton make incriminating findings. And the sooner the better he comes to a conclusion.

In the meantime, Ms O’Sullivan is expected to oversee a Garda reform programme designed to make policing decisions more transparent and members more accountable. For a Garda commissioner whose authority was beyond question, implementation would be daunting. For Ms O’Sullivan, the task is even greater.